Do playwrights make good directors? Only sometimes

Twelfth Night, Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Manet. The Beaver Coat, Play by Gerhart Hauptmann. Directed by John Bishop. Presented by Circle Reperatory.

In reviving two venerable comedies (through Feb. 1), the Circle repertory has enlisted two contemporary playwrights to stage them. Do writers make good directors? Not necessarily.These productions are less than ideal and provide shaky support for the notion of theatrical switch- hitting.

David Manet has been enormously celebrated for writing such plays as "American Buffalo" and "A Life in the Theatre." He is a resident playwright at the Circle Rep and has served as artistic director elsewhere. His mounting of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" is capable but rarely exciting. Though there's nothing wrong, exactly, the show never takes off. It just waltzes from scene to scene, diverting us without dazzling us.

The production's main asset is Lindsay Crouse, who plays Viola with plenty of boyish spirit, while maintaining the essential femininity of the character, who spends most of the play disguised as a young man. Strong support also comes from Trish Hawkins as Olivia.

The rest of the cast presents more problems. The comic stalwarts -- Sir Tobey Belch. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Malvolio -- are unevenly acted, while Colin Spinton plays Feste with a wiseacre smuggness that becomes awfully grating. Like the production itself, he's wry without being particularly funny or poetical. 'The Beaver Coat'

As directed by John Bishop, another resident playwright at Circle Rep, "The Beaver Coat" misses its comic mark altogether, falling -- by default -- into a kind of widely eccentric naturalism. Set around 1890, the story and the plot concern poor peasants and buffoonish bureaucrats involved in various peccadillos. Since the production rarely genrates any laughs, despite assorted mixups and pratfalls, the story takes on a somber hue, as if it weren't a farce at all but a lament or an expose. The grim undertones from overtones, and you feel like you've stumbled into a production of Hauptmann's magnum opus, "The Weavers," with its explicit sociological messages.

Remarkably, some of the players make good showings in this murky evening, especially Tanya Berezin and Ken Kliban as the heads of the peasant family. Michael Feingold's translation struggles for a humor the production rarely manages to manifest.

Watching these plays staged by playwrights, one applauds the Circle Rep's intention of plunking established writers into new theatrical jobs and thus encouraging versatility. But the company's current offerings are deficient in verve and imagination. For the time being, at least, a return to a division of labor might be a good idea. Let the writers write and hire on some first-rank directors to do the directing.

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